One of the tricks of being a successful journalist is being able to write confidently and with the impression of authority on subjects about which you know next to nothing. Sathnam Sanghera admits that he has never dealt with anyone in an HR function but that didn’t stop him from writing an article attacking the HR profession in today’s Times. his piece is rather like some of those articles which appeared a month or so ago attacking the NHS; light on evidence but with enough dog-whistle assertions to ensure a comments box full of foaming rants against its intended target.
Sangera demonstrates his lack of understanding when he jumps on the statistics from a recent report on the HR function by Deloittes:
The truth is that HR is shrinking and we should embrace its demise………HR is already shrinking: last week a report by Deloitte, the advisory firm, found that companies had recently got rid of 30 per cent of their HR people and argued that unless HR departments adapted to a new role, they could become defunct.
The reason 30% of HR people have disappeared is because HR functions have spent the past few years streamlining their processes and outsourcing their administrative functions. The CIPD report referred to by Deloitte shows a trend towards smaller HR functions with higher numbers of professional staff. Far from being a sign of HR’s decline, the reduction in its manpower is an indication that the profession is making some headway.
Despite having worked on newspapers for most of his short life, Sanghera tells us with conviction that “a few decades ago” HR functions worked just fine. Ah, another feature of pop-journalism; the mythical golden age. Just like when Matron ran the hospitals eh?
Get rid of 90 per cent of HR policies, 90 per cent of HR people and then wash your hands of it.
Now that would have been a really interesting place from which to start. If so much of what HR functions do is superfluous, why do so many organisations still have them? Why can’t you just get rid of 90 per cent of HR policies and people?
The answer is simple. HR functions don’t exist in isolation; they are part of a wider organisation and they almost always reflect the way that organisation is run. If a firm has a short-term focus, so will its HR department. If its managers are risk-averse its HR people will be too. It works the other way round. You can tell a lot about a company from looking at its HR function. If it is slow and bureaucratic, the chances are that the rest of the organisation will be similar. If HR is over-staffed and inefficient it is very unlikely that it will be part of an otherwise lean and streamlined operation.
It is always interesting to see what happens when the HR function is re-organised and reduced in size. Managers who have been slagging off HR for years soon change their tunes when they realise that there will be no-one there to wipe their backsides for them. They have to confront the poor performers, call people when they’ve been off sick for a few weeks, remember when the fixed-term contracts are coming up for renewal and talk to the police about the drunken after-work brawl in the pub next to the office. All things, you might argue, that a manager should do anyway but which, without the support of an HR professional, suddenly seem more daunting. When faced with the reality of life without their local HR manager in the next office, managers often become less gung-ho about getting rid of them.
The other useful function that HR serves is as a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention from other managers’ shortcomings. If you think you are about to get challenged on your department’s own inefficiency, try attacking HR. You can usually get some other people to gang up with you. Of course, this doesn’t work when you get an efficient pared-down HR function with a strong HR director.
The truth is, inefficient HR functions exist because they cover up the deficiencies of inefficient organisations. To any CEOs and directors who think that their HR function is useless and over-staffed I would ask this simple question, “If they are that crap, why haven’t you sacked them all?”
I’d go even further than that. If directors allow the continued existence of large departments which do not add any value to the business, are they not in breach of their fiduciary duties?
Sathnam Sanghera’s article is typical of many journalistic attacks on HR. It is written as if the HR function somehow exists in isolation from the organisation, as if it is an act of God, a force of nature or an unfortunate disease that attacks companies at random. In fact, HR functions grow up within organisations and, for the most part, reflect the culture and behaviours of the wider organisation. HR departments exist because, despite what they say, most directors and managers want them to. They have been a feature of organisations for the past fifty years or so and will continue to be, in one form or another, for the next fifty.